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Will banning military-style gear for police reduce tensions?

Images of protests in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore showed police officers in military gear, pointing rifles and using tear gas. Today President Obama announced a ban on selling certain military-style gear to local police. Judy Woodruff talks to Charles Ramsey, co-chair of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing and Richard Beary of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Many of the images that first called the nation's attention to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer were ones like these, video of the police force responding in strength and sometimes resembling a small army, including officers clad in military gear, pointing rifles at the crowds and using tear gas.

    The clashes in Baltimore and New York City have reinforced those images as well. Much of this equipment was made available to local police departments in the years after the 9/11 attacks. But, today, President Obama announced a ban on the sale or transfer of certain military-style gear to local police, including tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and firearms of .50-caliber or higher.

    He spoke in Camden, New Jersey.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    We have seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there is an occupying force, as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting and serving them. It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.

    So, we're going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefields that is not appropriate for local police departments.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A closer look at what's behind this decision, and its potential impact.

    Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is the co-chair of the President's Task Force on Policing, which has been working on these issues. And Richard Beary, he is the president of the International Association of Police Chiefs. He's the former police chief of the city of Lake Mary, Florida, and now he's chief of police for the University of Central Florida.

    And, gentlemen, we thank you both.

    Chief Ramsey, let me start with you. What the president did today was one of really picking up on one of the recommendations of the task force you led, have been leading, the recommendations you made. Why is this necessary?

    CHARLES RAMSEY, Co-chair, President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing: Well, I think it's clearly necessary that we be able to, as police, justify any equipment that we receive, not just from the military, but also using federal grants to get some of the equipment.

    Obviously, we need a broad range of equipment. Police handle everything from missing children to active shooters. And obviously the kind of equipment that you would need to respond effectively varies a great deal. But some military equipment is more appropriate for the field of battle, not the urban streets of our cities.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Chief Beary, you agree that this is the right thing to do to ban access to this kind — some kinds of military-style equipment?

    RICHARD BEARY, President, International Association of Chiefs of Police: I think everybody is looking for a balance.

    We at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, we understand that we have to have the support of the community, but at the same time, as Chief Ramsey says, law enforcement is dealing with lots of new threats. Twenty years ago, whoever heard of an active shooter? Now we hear about it all the time.

    So we have to make sure that we balance the needs of the public and the safety of the officers and those that are sworn to protect the public. And that's what we're trying to do here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Chief Ramsey, how do you think about achieving that balance and how much of this has to do with equipment and how much of it has to do with the training of the police themselves, the culture that they work in?

  • CHARLES RAMSEY:

    Well, I think most of it has to do with training, but probably the most important aspect of this is policy.

    At what point in time is it property to deploy certain types of equipment? And there are need to be standards in place, policies in place to guide the officers so they have clear direction. And I think that we have seen some instances where certain types of equipment were deployed, in my opinion, at a point in time when it wasn't really necessary. And that's what creates a lot of the problems.

    So it's training, it's policy, it's all of those things combined that I think we need to make sure are in place, and I think that the government is right in seeing to it that we do have those things in place before providing that kind of equipment to an agency.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Chief Ramsey, what's an example of the time and place when it was — the wrong thing was used?

  • CHARLES RAMSEY:

    Well, when you're talking about mass demonstrations, depending on the crowd, and we're not talking about all-out riots like we saw the first day in Baltimore, when things really spiraled out of control, and even later in Ferguson, when things spiraled out of control, but when it first started, I know that in — I was in Washington, D.C., and now Philadelphia.

    We try to start off without using certain types of equipment. We have them available, but it's certainly out of sight. We don't want to incite a crowd. So I think it's way in which you deploy, depending on what it is you're responding to and what you're dealing with. People have a right to protest, and if you show up with riot gear, and heavy armored vehicles and so forth when people are just simply out peacefully demonstrating, you're going to get exactly that. You're going to wind up with a riot, more than likely.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Chief Beary, same question. How do you strike the right balance and how much of this is the equipment and how much of it is the training and the approach and the culture of the police force?

  • RICHARD BEARY:

    Well, a couple of important things come to light.

    Number one, what we know is that 90 percent of what law enforcement agencies across this country have received from the military had nothing to do with tanks and guns and things like that. The majority of the equipment that we have received are radios, and equipment, things that help us do our job in the community. So I think we need to make sure we understand that.

    Secondly is, training is absolutely — is an essential part to responding to any type of situation. So I agree with Chief Ramsey. It's about training, it's policy, but it's also about having that just in case you need it, because you just don't know when a crowd is going to go bad. A perfect example was in Waco, Texas, yesterday. They didn't expect the shoot-out that they had there.

    So it's a real combination, and that's the delicate balance with trying to be a police chief in this country, is to make sure you have your people prepared, you have the equipment that you need, at the same time, not coming off like you're trying to intimidate the community that you serve.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Chief Ramsey, I would like you to respond to that and also address — I mean, how much of a problem do we have in this country right now between police and communities who feel that they are just not understood and not respected by the police?

  • CHARLES RAMSEY:

    Well, you know, it depends on the city, the relationship that police and community have.

    Obviously, there are some areas and some pockets in many of our cities where relationships are strained. That's not necessarily new. I started my policing career in 1968 in Chicago and we had areas of our city where no one would talk to you, provide information and so forth. I mean, there was tension between police and community.

    Now, we have engaged in community policing for the last three decades at least, and I think we have done a very, very good job of establishing relationships and also reducing crime, but we have left some communities behind. There still remains some tension and we need to really be sure that we build bridges, that we close those gaps with those communities as well. And they tend to be communities of color and communities that are challenged in many ways with poverty, lack of educational opportunities of quality and things of that nature.

    So we have got a lot of work ahead of us. But the community has to work alongside us. This isn't just a police issue. It takes the community also reaching out to us, as we reach out to them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Chief Beary, finally, how do you — how much of a problem do you think the country has? How much of the country has this kind of a problem that we're talking about and to what extent do you think banning these so-called militaristic-style pieces of equipment will make a difference?

  • RICHARD BEARY:

    Well, I don't think what the government has banned will have that big of an impact.

    What our concern is, is really the stuff that they have — equipment that they have limited and we're waiting to see how the rules are going to roll out to how we justify the use and things of that nature. Certainly, when it comes to community policing, that is a key part of the solution.

    However, we know there's a lot of issues going on in our communities from poverty to mental health issues. There's a host of issues that are going on. And the IACP, for over 20 years, has called for a national summit on criminal justice, the entire system. And we're hoping that all the things combined will lead to that commission to take a look at the whole system and how to better handle the delivery of service to our communities and treat our people and men and women who work for us and the citizens with respect.

    So there's a lot of work ahead. I think it's also important to note that there are a lot of communities across this country that are doing a great job and law enforcement doing a great job. There was a Reuters poll that was done in January this year. And three-quarters of the people that responded to that survey said they have confidence in their local police department.

    So there's a lot of good things being done across the country. We just need to continue to enhance that and deliver the service that our communities expect.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Chief Richard Beary, who is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and Chief Charles Ramsey of Philadelphia, we thank you both.

  • RICHARD BEARY:

    Thank you.

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